India’s Modi Wins a Little, Sonia Blossoms

The Modi government has at last had a couple of parliamentary successes with two urgent pieces of legislation covering auctions of coal and other mining leases being passed on March 20 at the end of the first part of the Budget session.

That was the result of political haggling and deal making with opposition parties that Narendra Modi and his colleagues seem to have realized is more effective than the arrogant self-assuredness that came with their landslide general election victory last year.

They have however changed tack too late to pass vitally important land acquisition legalization. The government has been so insensitive to popular pressures that it has managed to unite a motley collection of opposition parties into a cohesive force on the issue in the Rajya Sabha (upper house) where it does not have a majority.

Meanwhile Rahul Gandhi, vice president of the Congress Party, has not been seen for a month. No one – presumably apart from his mother Sonia and a few other insiders – knows where he has gone, nor why, though there is a strong rumor that he had a bust up row with Sonia over party reforms and left.

I asked a couple of wise contacts in the India International Center over the weekend and one of them said “He went first to Myanmar and then on to Cambodia”. Well, that would be quite a trip, and Myanmar has been one of his rumored hideaways in the past. But the official word is that he is “introspecting on the future of the Congress Party” in advance of taking over from his mother as party president.

Rahul vanished without warning just as the budget session started on February 23, and was due back after two weeks. His presidential anointing was officially rumored to follow in April. But he extended his “sabbatical” and the rumor mill now says the session of the top-level All India Congress Committee (AICC), where he would take over, has been postponed till the autumn, or later. He is now expected back “at the end of the month,” which roughly means within a week.

His loyalists remain loyal, even though he has missed a month of key parliamentary debates that included the annual budget. But they are beginning to indicate impatience, while not daring to be critical enough to upset either “the family” or the equilibrium balanced around the dynasty at the top of the party.

Jyotiraditya Scindia, probably the most competent Congress politicians of 44-year old Rahul Gandhi’s generation, and the son of a former party leader, came near to criticism in a Headlines Today television interview last week.

He said several times that he accepted Rahul’s (and Sonia’s) leadership and asserted, “they both inspire us.” But in answer to a direct question from Rajdeep Sardesai, the interviewer, he said, “Yes, I think the time for introspection is way over. I think the time for execution [of a new approach] should have started a couple of months ago”.

Meanwhile Sonia Gandhi has had a splendid couple of weeks, literally leading her party from the front on two political marches through Delhi with a self-assurance and determination she rarely shows.

The first march was to former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s home on March 12 to assure him of the party’s support. He has been summoned to appear in court as an accused in a case on a coal mining lease scandal stemming from decisions taken when he was doubling up as coal minister (more on that later – he is due to appeal against the summons ion the next few days).

Next she led her own MPs and those of other parties to President Pranab Mukherjee’s palace to protest against the proposed land legislation, and then she toured poor farmers rural areas to express sympathy with their problems, She spoke out with more determination than is usual and looked comfortable with her role.

Maybe she has been trying to show Rahul that she has political strength and he should not try to ignore her views and the advice of elders when he takes over the party. Or she could merely be trying to show that ensure that Congress does not crumble too far by the time he steps in . The party is split with many older leaders fearing Rahul’s plans to revamp the organization and hold elections for posts at all levels, and these elders may be encouraging Sonia to re-establish her authority.

Scindia’s remark indicates that his generation wants the sort of structural and democratic reforms that Rahul has talked about, but is growing impatient with his apparent reluctance to get to grips with real political leadership.

At the same time however, it is worth noting that the thirteen other regional and leftist opposition parties that were willing to be led to the presidential palace by Sonia would almost certainly not have fallen into line behind Rahul.

“Sorry folks, I’m out”

Congress did so badly in the general election that it only has 44 of the 542 seats in the Lok Sabha (lower house of parliament) so does not even qualify as the official opposition party. It has been heavily defeated in five state assembly polls since the general election, including Delhi where it had ruled for 15 years.

It is now making the land legislation the main basis of its opposition to the government. It aims to build on growing public concern bordering on distrust of Modi and of his government’s apparent authoritarianism and lack of interest in protecting Muslim and Christian minorities. The land legislation fits into that theme because it could hurt the poor by toughening up a land bill passed by the Congress government so that it is easier and faster for agricultural areas to be used for industrial and other developments.

But such a campaign needs leadership, and that provides Rahul Gandhi with a chance to re-emerge from wherever he is and take charge of his party. If he’s not up to it, it might be better if he stayed away and tweeted “sorry folks, I’m out”.

John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s New Delhi correspondent. His blog, Riding the Elephant, appears at the bottom right of Asia Sentinel’s homepage.